Fire Safety Starts at Home

March 01, 1994

The Hollins Street fire station was only one block away. But flames and impenetrable smoke engulfed a two-story West Baltimore rowhouse so rapidly late Saturday night that firefighters were unable to save nine of its 14 residents. Seven of the dead were children.

In recent years, Baltimore has forged a tragic record for devastating house fires. Most of the fires have common causes such as improper heating practices and unsafe use of space heaters or extension cords. Most tragedies also share this element: No smoke alarms.

Last weekend's fire started from a candle that was used to provide light. Electricity in the house, occupied by members of three families, had been turned off last October due to a delinquent $1,600 bill. Gas was still on, under a Baltimore Gas & Electricity Co. policy that prohibits the denial of all fuel in winter. But the house, equipped with an oil furnace, had no heat -- either because the tank was empty or because most oil and gas burners require electricity to operate.

"I cannot understand how they could have survived without electricity for four months," fire department Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said yesterday.

This tragedy should prompt BG&E and the Maryland Public Service Commission to review the programs that are in effect to provide emergency heat and electricity to those in need in winter. City social workers and housing officials also ought to scrutinize what went wrong, including the overcrowding that contributed to turning the house into a fire trap.

Ultimately, however, fire safety must begin with personal responsibility at home. No home ought to be without a working smoke detector, especially when those devices are sold at city fire stations for $6 each. In many cases, they have been given out for free if money seems to be the problem.

Baltimoreans must also cease such irresponsible practices as using kerosene space heaters, which are expressedly prohibited in the city, or overloading extension cords. Some people without electricity in the poorest neighborhoods string extension cords from a neighbor's unit to access power. The welter of cords can overheat and cause a fire.

Smoke detectors are particularly important in a city of rowhouses: You may be the safest person on earth, but if your neighbor does not share your sense of responsibility, innocent people may become fire victims.

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